Category: Life Hacks


Living well on less often means taking advantage of situations to the best of your ability.  I don’t mean being greedy or doing illegal things, but I do mean taking and using what’s available to you each and every time.

Getting free food

For example, the office where I work is adminstered by a property management company.  Every day or so, the secretary will put out cookies and sometimes fruits and other snacks in the communal kitchen.  Whenever I see cookies, I take one.  Whenever I see fruit, I take one.  It doesn’t matter if I’m hungry at that moment or not, I still make sure to take one.  Why?  Well, later in the day when my energy starts to sag, I will eat that cookie instead of wasting time daydreaming about snacks or spending money on a bag of chips.  The next day I can eat the fruit that I snagged instead of bringing one from home.  Both of these small actions save me money by simply taking advantage of a small benefit – free snacks and cookies – that my building offers.

I also go to monthly user groups for people interested in bioinformatics (computational biology).  At the end of the seminar, the group provides free pizza to encourage people to stay and network.  There’s always 15 or so boxes of pizza for 10-30 individuals.  I always take 2-3 slices.  I eat 1-2 and save the rest for my lunch the next day.  I don’t try to take an entire pizza, or even half a pizza, but I do take a reasonable amount which allows me to have a free dinner and a free lunch the next day.

Getting free household goods

I usually hang on to coupons until I can get something for very little or preferably free.  I don’t often use coupons in my day-to-day grocery shopping because most of the items I buy are store-brand or consist of fresh produce.  But once in a while, I’ll grab something on sale using a coupon, if it’s really really worth it.  In the last three months alone, I’ve picked up Ziploc bags, toothpaste, toothbrushes and vitamins for free.  The Ziploc bags were $2 each and I had a coupon for $4 off when you buy 2.  The vitamins for $10 on sale and I had a coupon for $10 off.

I saved about $50 by using coupons on these items at the right time.  I don’t go all out and get 10 boxes of Ziploc bags or 15 tubes of toothpaste.  I usually get 1 or 2 of each free item – just enough to save me some money that’s better spent elsewhere.

I also always request free samples directly from companies, whenever they are offered.  For example, Proctor and Gamble give away samples of their products every month or two.  You can get travel sized samples mailed directly to your home with very little effort on your part.  These products are great for the suitcase or gym bag, plus, they come in handy if you suddenly find yourself short on shampoo or detergent!  Sure, you usually have to sign up for spam and advertisements, but if you have an email address dedicated to receiving this kind of thing, it shouldn’t impact your “real” email.  RedFlagDeals in Canada is a great site to keep up to date on freebies like the P&G giveaways.

Getting free medications, classes and dental work

I’m also a big advocate of maxing out your work benefits.  People often neglect their benefits, but they are an important part of your compensation.  When I decided to leave my job and go back to school I didn’t just quit.  I bought a supply of contact lenses and medications, covered by work benefits.  I took as many classes at the university as I could take, fully covered by work benefits.  I even had my teeth straightened – a $3000 benefit! – courtesy of work.

If I didn’t use these benefits, I would have had to spend thousands of dollars of my own money.

Many work places also offer benefits for massage therapists, physical therapy and counseling.  How many times have you had a nagging pain in your back or felt stressed out and wanted to talk to a professional?  Why not go to a therapist, courtesy of your workplace?

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Taking advantage of situations saves money and often prevents things from simply going to waste.  Where in you own life can you take advantage of situations?

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Cutting down on your spending money may seem like a big sacrifice. In a consumer mindset, it’s easy to equate spending money with having fun.  I’ve found that reducing your spending does not have to reduce your fun. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at common areas where it can be easy to overspend and provide some free alternatives that are just as fun and entertaining!

Entertainment

Last week I took a look at different ways to cut down on your sport and exercise expenditure. This week, I’ll suggest some free and fun entertainment options when you’re not feeling particularly sporty. It fits nicely with the theme I like to call “places you spend money when you’re not eating, sleeping or working!”

Peruse your local art galleries or museums

Many small galleries and museums offer free admission or nearly free admission. For example, the Vancouver Art Gallery offers admission by donation between 5pm and 9pm on Tuesday evenings (it’s in very very small print at the bottom of the page!). I spent a summer living in France and observed similar deals. At the time, The Louvre offered free admission for students on the last Tuesday of the month. Now, they offer free admission to everyone on the first Sunday of the month. I see a trend: if it happens in Vancouver AND Paris, you can find probably something in your neighborhood as well.

Keep in mind that if you’re looking for art to browse you don’t necessarily need to go to a art gallery. Check out your local art store – there’s nothing wrong with browsing!  Many artists will also display their works at public markets or community events.   It’s a great way to see work from local artists.

Comedy and Theatre Shows

Did you know it’s possible to get free tickets to comedy shows? I didn’t until I saw free tickets being posted by the club itself semi-regularly on Craigslist. CF and I emailed, and ended up getting 6 free tickets!  It does make sense when you think about it; the more people at the show, the more money the club will make off drinks and food. I’m sure the comics appreciate a full crowd rather than empty seats as well. Who knows, you may witness the next Russell Peters!

Many theatres will also offer free passes to shows… if you’re willing to put in a bit of work!  During the summer, Vancouver hosts productions of Shakespeare in the park.  These shows are extensively staffed by volunteers.  If you are willing to volunteer a few hours,  you get to see shows for free!   I have found that this is true for most live theatre.  Support the arts, and you’ll get to enjoy it too.

Local Events

With summer just around the corner, the number of free festivals and events is about to take off. One of the  highlights for me last year was a Fresh Air Cinema viewing of Mamma Mia.  It was shown on a giant projection screen in the middle of the park. Free, fun and an awesome way to spend a summer evening.

Many cities also have music festivals during the summer.  Last year in Vancouver, we had the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, for example.  It was a great party with lots of free music, a great atmosphere and a great crowd.

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Hopefully some of these ideas will spark an idea or motivate you to do some research into activities in your area. There are a lot of options out there waiting for you to find them! Next week, free and fun food. Yep, you can get food for free if you know how. As always, send me a message or leave a comment if you have anything specific you’d like covered in a future article.

Cutting down on your spending money may seem like a big sacrifice. In a consumer mindset, it’s easy to equate spending money with having fun. But I’ve found that reducing your spending does not have to equal reducing your fun. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at common areas where it can be easy to overspend and provide some free alternatives that are just as fun and entertaining!

Sport and Exercise

Free classes in the community

This past weekend, I attended a free yoga class. Yep, FREE. As a society I believe we’re taught to be distrustful of free stuff. For example, when I told my barista that I’d just attended a free yoga class across the street, he replied, “Free? Nothing’s free, what’s in it for them?”

Thankfully, some companies understand the value of product exposure and good will. The class was hosted in their store an hour and a half before opening time. It cost the company a teacher for one hour and it cost me nothing! Yoga can be a very expensive pursuit and can easily cost you $8 – $15 per session. Take advantage of programs like this in your neighborhood and save some money.

Local community centers also often offer free “teaser” classes where you can try out a new activity or class.

Take advantage of low-cost or free sports

There are a lot of sports out there that cost little to no money to participate in. Taking up any of these sports will greatly cut down on your sporting expenditures while still providing the exercise and competition you desire. Tennis, for example, is essentially a free sport. Aside from the modest start up costs of a racquet and balls, court time is generally free.

If you’re looking for a partner to play with or looking for someone of similar skill level, sign up for Juump. Juump is a free service that allows you to meet other tennis players in your area. You can meet new friends, see who plays at your favorite court and invite people to play with you.

Almost any sport can be free or nearly free if you get enough people together. Some of the best games of ball hockey I’ve ever played have been casual games played in the depths of parking garages with my friends rather than on a regulation court! Ultimate Frisbee is another great social game that can be played in a large group and is accessible to people of all skill levels.

Exercise outside of the gym

In my opinion, paying for a gym membership is a waste of money for most people. Many exercises done at the gym can be done just as effectively at home. Craving the treadmill? Go for a run. Ready to pump iron? Invest in a resistance band. There are a lot of exercises that can be done right at home with minimal equipment as well. My first experience in a ‘gym-like’ environment was at a friend’s house in high school. Many of our exercises did not use equipment and instead, made use of common household items. Doing some dips? Kitchen counters are a great height!

Swimming is another great form of exercise that is also easily found for free.  In the summer, hit the beaches and free outdoor pools.  If you’re a student, you can usually swim for free year-round at certain hours during the day at your university’s pool.

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In the end, being active and living a healthy lifestyle does not need to cost a lot of money. Next week I’ll take a look at some free and fun entertainment options. Leave a comment or email me if you have a specific topic you’d like to see covered in the future.

The power of negotiating

At my job, we employ one person whose task is to get us the best deals on all of the conferences and meetings that we organize. Recently, he managed to secure a venue at almost half off the listed price – a reduction of approximately $50,000. This was a pretty big revelation for me, seeing how much power the consumer really has. When asked if anyone pays full price for such venues, he replied, “Some do! The key to getting something for less than the advertised price is to ask. What’s the worst thing that will happen? They’ll say no.” There are countless opportunities every day for you to start practicing your negotiation skills, so where can you start? You may be surprised at some of the places where I’ve found that negotiating works!

Online Classifieds

Sites like Craigslist offer a great starting point. Negotiating over emails is a great way to get your first deal; you have time to compose and think about your offer. The nice thing is, most posters don’t expect to get paid full price! I know that when I post an item, I automatically think that I’ll likely sell it for $5-10 less than I say in the ad.

Travel Agencies

Once again, posted ‘sales’ are usually not the best deal you can get when booking a holiday through an agent. Take the time to visit the office in person and ask for a better deal. Shop around with other agencies and sites and be ready to quote them. In competitive industries, getting your business is more important than making their profit margin.

The Grocery Store

Yep, you read that right. Recently, I visited the flower department of my local big box grocery store. I was looking for an orchid, to give to CF’s mother in celebration of New Year’s.  I found the best little orchid (half sized) priced at $16.99, which I would have been happy to pay. After discussing the price with CF within earshot of the sales rep, the rep offered to sell it to us for $9.99. Sold!

Negotiating can be a lot of fun. It made the top 30 financial things to try before you hit 30 over at TFB. Looking for some more tips on negotiating? Check out some of the links below:

How to Negotiate

Tips for travellers

Happy bargain hunting!

Creating a new normal

I’m big on doing “the little things right” – pulling the shower curtain closed so it can dry properly, closing lids of containers after I use them, turning off the lights when I’m not in a room… and more!  My mind is often organized as one giant checklist that I like to periodically refer to.  That’s the way I am.  I am forever thinking about the little details.  But not everyone is wired that way.  Many people simple don’t connect leaving a room with turning off the lights.  It’s just something that doesn’t enter their minds as they go about their daily life and that makes it hard to change.  As someone who likes the “little things” done, sometimes the best way to encourage people to change is to create a new normal.

When I started at my current job, the sugar jar was always left open.  I am not sure why.  To me, an open communal jar of sugar evokes images of all sorts of nasty things falling into the jar, getting mixed in with my sugar, and ahhhhhh… But I’m anal like that!  There are good reasons to keep the sugar jar closed though: (1) the sink is right beside it, and you wouldn’t want water from dirty dishes getting washed to splash into the sugar (2) there’s often baking set out in the kitchen, so there are usually crumbs on the counter which could attract bugs – an open jar of sugar is prime bug food!  So how to change the situation?

At other work places I’ve been to, people will often leave notes.  “Clean up after yourselves!”  “Remove food from fridge after one week!”

But it’s been shown that notes and signs decrease in impact after each viewing.  Plus, it’s kind of passive aggressive…

Instead, I decided to close the sugar jar each time I was in the kitchen, even if I was not using the sugar.  By closing the sugar jar whenever I saw it, I ensured that when other people came to use the sugar jar, they would find it closed.  So if they wanted to use it, they had to open it.  After a week or two, I noticed that the sugar jar started being closed when I passed by the kitchen.  After three months, I never found the sugar jar left opened.

What happened?

I don’t have a scientific explanation.  I would speculate that by setting a new standard for what was “normal” – in this case, the state of the sugar jar as closed rather than open – people became more reluctant to leave it in an abnormal state.  By forcing them to open the jar, it also drew attention to the closed state of jar when they found it.  Afterward, perhaps they felt guilty or perhaps they were just instinctively reacting to the environment.  Either way, it works!

Making use of hotel freebies

Whether you stay at a 5-star resort or a B&B off the beaten path, your guest bathroom will come adorned with cute little bottles of shampoo, conditioner and soap. Sometimes more! I’ve had offerings of lotion, mouthwash, and even bath salts. While I never end up using all that is offered, I always make a point of taking my leftovers with me. The hotel will not use a half empty bottle after all, and these small offerings are part of the cost of staying there. But after a while, these cute bottles of shampoo and miniature bars of soap can add up and turn into closet clutter. Here’s what you can do with them:

Make hotel freebies part of your sports bag

Small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash are perfect for sports bags. After an hour or two at the gym, these little guys are your shower room lifesavers. Mini bottles of shampoo typically cost more than a full container! This is a great frugal way to use up your freebies and keep clean while working out without having to carry full size bottles or bother with refilling reusable ones.

Put lotions and hand sanitizers into your purse

I often find myself searching for a bit of lotion, especially during the dry, cold months. Little bottles of lotion are perfect for stashing in your purse or handbag. Ditto for hand sanitizers – stash a bottle in your bag and never worry about a soap-less bathroom again.

Mini bars of soap are great fresheners

I don’t often like to try new soaps because my skin is a bit sensitive. But these small bars of soap can be placed in drawers, in luggage or even hidden away in a shoe closet to freshen up the contents. You don’t even need to remove the soap from it’s packaging – Just place it in a an out of the way corner and it will do the rest! I keep a bar in my front closet to combat the inevitable shoe smells.

Make homemade gift baskets

If you’re left with a bunch of matching bottles that have never been used, why not turn them into little gift baskets? A bit of coloured tissue paper inside a small basket, a little bit of cellophane to hold it all together, and ta da – homemade present. I probably wouldn’t give this away to a close friend (unless I knew they were a big fan of bath products) but it would make a handy gift to have “on hand” for unexpected gift-giving. I would also use it as an addition to a larger, related gift – for example, as part of a spa gift certificate or a hair salon package. (…Or you could jump on board with our gift-giving philosophy!)

Finally…

You can always use these freebies as intended, as part of your daily routine. The next time you run out of shampoo, for example, use up your hotel leftovers instead of reaching for a new bottle.  This reduces your clutter and saves a bit of money as well.

Cable TV and internet are two of those annoying bills that somehow seemed to have crept into the “necessities” category for many households.  While I don’t consider TV and internet essential, my finances are such that I can afford them.  But, there’s no need to pay full price!  Here’s how you can get cable TV and internet for less.

How much TV?

First, how much cable TV do you need?  I don’t watch a lot of TV, but both the boyfriend and I enjoy watching live sports.  He also follows a few network TV sitcoms.  For us, the basic cable package provides both of these features.  While I do occasionally watch TV series which are broadcast only on specialty channels, I usually end up downloading episodes for ease of viewing.

If you don’t watch a lot of TV and you don’t follow live sports, why the hell do you have cable?!  You could get rid of your TV entirely. Or less drastically, you could get yourself a pair of modern rabbit ears and grab a couple of free channels off the air for idle channel surfing. Many OTA signals are now digital! Download any TV shows that you care to follow.

How much internet?

Secondly, how much internet do you need?  Internet providers in BC offer different tiers of service depending on the speeds you’re looking for.  The boyfriend and I do an average amount of downloading, plus we surf the web and occasionally play online MMORPGs.  We’re quite happy to stick with the “regular” speed internet.  Perhaps if you do a lot of downloading, you’d want a higher tier… or you could schedule your downloads for the night time while you are asleep and speed doesn’t matter!

Again, if you don’t go on the internet regularly… why the hell do you have internet at home?!  If you only use the internet to surf the web and check email once a day, you don’t need to have internet at home.  Just show up to work 15 or 20 minutes early and use your work computer.  I did this for 2 months after a move, and I’m a computer science major!  I use computers A LOT, so if I can live without internet at home, so can you.  Other ideas: Stop by the local library and make the most of your free membership to use their free internet.  Take your laptop to wifi hotspots (coffee shops, universities, etc.) and browse for free.  Options abound!

How to get the best prices?

Finally… prices.  How do you get the best price for cable and internet?

I have ALWAYS found that merely calling up the cable company does not get you the best price.  Frequently, third-party contractors who solicit customers on behalf of cable companies will offer better deals and promotions.  These contractors are often found at kiosks in malls or at special events.  This is where I signed up for cable and internet most recently.  For $19.99, I get basic digital cable and high speed internet for 6 months.  My digital box is free!  When my 6 months is over, I will cancel and then either my boyfriend or my roommate will sign up for the same deal for another 6 months.

If a deal isn’t available, I can cancel my service and go to the competition.  With the competitor, I will probably be able to get another good introductory deal for 6 months.  I may even get bonuses for leaving my current provider!  Conversely, my current provider might offer bonuses for me to stay.  Either way, a win-win situation.

And if you are not concerned with having regular internet and TV service, as is often the case for me, simply cut your service.  Within a few weeks, your cable company will call you up with a “special offer”.  I know a couple who has done this indefinitely and they’ve only ever paid $10 a month for cable.  For a few weeks or months out of the year, they do not have cable.  But in return, they’re saving tons of money!

Cable TV and internet don’t have to be a weighty bill every month.  Know your own needs and know how to play the system.